Exercise Your Child's STEM Skills With Houseplants
This Fall & Winter

Posted by KnowingNature on November 5, 2020

Indoor Garden Microgreens Pink Planter Pea Shoots

Did you know that common indoor planting activities, like caring for your houseplants, microgreens and herbs, exercise your child's STEM skills? STEM skills include critical thinking & problem solving skills that help us in all areas of life. This article explains how caring for plants exercises each STEM subject, and gives examples of the kinds of questions that you can use to flex those STEM skills while caring for your plants.

Teaching STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is important because both the substance and the STEM way of thinking helps kids in all kinds of real world situations. The STEM way of thinking, sometimes called the engineering design process, presents kids with project-based question instead of subject-based question. Re-framing the questions this way requires kids to define their goals at the start, identify the issues and draw on numerous subject areas in order to solve the problem.

Planting requires EXACTLY this way of thinking. Those of us who have plants at home are already doing it. If you don't have plants, I invite you to pick up a houseplant, start growing microgreens (our favorite kind of houseplants) or pick up some herb cuttings and read on to discover how caring for your indoor plants this fall and winter will exercise your kids' STEM skills.

Planting draws on the SCIENCE of how plants grow, climate & biology.

Child viewing the roots

Viewing the roots. 

How much water and sun does my plant need?" This is the first question we ask when we bring a plant home, and we keep asking it as our plant grows, moves locations or moves into a different plant pot. It is also a SCIENCE question that examines the climate from which our plant comes. Does this plant come from a jungle or a desert? Desert plants will want lots of sun and very little water, whereas jungle plants will want moderate watering and partial sun because they are used to competing for both with lots of other plants in the dense jungle. TIP: If you aren't sure, ask your child to look up and share with you what life is like for your plant in its native environment.

"How should I trim my plant?" That is a SCIENCE question that draws on the biology of how plants grow. We get different results when we cut through a leaf, cut off a leaf, cut a stem and cut a flower. Define your goal for trimming (for example, "I want my plant to grow more branches") and ask your child to predict what will happen if you trim different areas. TIP: Compare the plants body to our human bodies. It's an exciting & practical lesson to discover how the cells in different parts of the plant act differently just like the cells in one part of our body grows a nose and in a different part of our body grows nails. 

Planting TECHNOLOGY includes the types of planters and tools we use for growing, watering, pruning and harvesting.  

"What kind of planter should I use?" This TECHNOLOGY question examines the size, stability, material AND weight of the planter. A dieffenbachia that grows fast and gets heavy will need a bigger and more stable plant pot than a jade plant that grows slowly and is lightweight. Microgreens which are harvested and replanted frequently need a more durable and easier to clean planter than herbs which are harvested infrequently and are replanted only once or twice a year. TIP: Ask your child to evaluate the plant pot you are using or to design the "dream plant pot" for the plant you are growing.  

"How should I water my plants?" This TECHNOLOGY question examines which tools can get water from our water source to the plant. Adults may spend only a few seconds deciding what tool to use, but for kids this is the kind of problem-solving that they find fun! Younger kids act out these everyday scenarios during pretend play, and older kids "create" these sort of problems for themselves when they take on new projects (think about how excited kids get setting-up a lemonade stand or a pretend restaurant at home). They get to imagine solutions, decide which ones to use, and then actually try them out. TIP: Ask your kids to find the perfect watering tool for your space and let them try it out (i.e., test their hypothesis). A small cup? Prepare for a lot of back and forth trips. A giant bowl? Prepare for heavy lifting and lots of spilling (disclaimer: developing STEM skills can get messy sometimes). 

Growing plants requires kids to ENGINEER the results they want based on the resources they have.

Child growing organic pea shoots on indoor windowsill

Let's play.

"How can I make my air cleaner with plants?" "How can I stop my pet dog or cat from eating my plants?" "How can I grow edibles at home?"  "How can I add more plants to my collection?" These are ENGINEERING questions because they require us us to build something to achieve our goal. Another way to think of it is that we are designing a method of achieving our goal using the knowledge & resources available to us. For clean air, we are creating an air filtration system. For our pets, we are creating obstacles or hiding spots to keep the pets away from the plants. For growing edibles we are figuring or how to farm in our indoor space. This is called the engineering design process because engineers  start with the goal and then turn to their resources to design and build their solution. TIP: See if you can work plants into a broader goal in your space, such as how to make more play space in a bedroom or declutter an area. 

Planting requires MATH skills for shape, quantity and arrangement.

Arranging soil & seeds in a planter to grow microgreens.

"Where should I put my planter?" This is a MATH question that requires us to measure and compare. Does this shelf or windowsill have enough surface area for the bottom of this plant pot? If there is more than one plant, which one is taller/shorter, and how should they be arranged so that they do not block the sunlight to the other plants? TIP: Move your plant pots to a table (when was the last time you cleaned under them?) and ask your child to arrange them back and why they chose each location. 

As we arrange our plants, we examine where the sunlight is coming from (astronomy) and how much sun each plant needs (biology), and we can see how the STEM way of thinking ties together multiple subject areas in order to achieve our goal.

If your are growing plants you are already flexing your STEM skills. Let the kids join the fun! 

Giving a child their own planter or making them in charge of a specific plant is a fun & natural way (get it??) for them to learn STEM subjects and practice the STEM way of thinking. If they are not ready or seem uninterested, let them hear and see you caring for plants. Watching you will not only expose them to your thought process, it will also instill in them an appreciation and value for nature. 

If you are new to plants, or looking to add plants that will help spark your child's interest, we suggest growing microgreens on your indoor windowsill. We love microgreens for kids because it offers the entire planting cycle - from planting seeds to harvest - in a very short amount of time (usually less than 2 weeks), and they can be grown successfully on any indoor windowsill. The short time frame can be especially valuable so kids stay engaged and see results quickly. We at KnowingNature offer microgreens growing kits, and there are lots of other kits and ways to grow them in containers you already have at home.

We would love to hear about your favorite indoor planting activity with kids! Please let us know in the comments, or email us at hello@knowingnature.com.